For a film about the breakdown of a bourgeoisie family’s comfortable suburban existence following the death of its patriarch, Russell Harbaugh’s Love After Love is a remarkably cool-headed, composed piece of work. Like John Magary’s The Mend, which Harbaugh helped conceive, this melancholic drama is marked by an acute focus on the quarrelsome collision of various family members’ ideas of themselves and each other, and it benefits from its nuanced, fully inhabited performances. But unlike The Mend, which is as abundant in frantic leaps in style as it is in mood swings, Love After Love displays a commitment to balance, consistency, and a persistent formal idea: In every scene, a steady camera observes Harbaugh’s characters from a careful distance on a zoom lens, and the cutting is dictated less by the tempo of their banter than by the turbulent pace of their inner lives.
With that as its strategy, Love After Love is at its most uptempo in its opening credit sequence, which depicts a picnic between family and friends on a crisp fall afternoon and deftly nestles revealing exposition within a slew of off-the-cuff character introductions. The pace of the scene is telling, since it’s the only time we see Glenn (Gareth Williams) at something close to full strength. The atmosphere is convivial and lively, thanks in part to an accompanying blast of free jazz from legendary saxophonist Idris Ackamoor—one in a number of surprising soundtrack cues, ranging from deep funk to blues, that pockmark the piano-driven score by composer David Shire.
However, everything darkens rapidly from here as Glenn is revealed, in an upsettingly casual ellipsis worthy of filmmaker Maurice Pialat, to be on his deathbed. Wife Suzanne (Andie MacDowell) and sons Nicholas (Chris O’Dowd) and Chris (James Adomian) tend to the ailing patriarch as he wheezes loudly in the center of their storied family home, while others, like Nicholas’s wife, Rebecca (Juliet Rylance), wonder aloud what they can do from the sidelines, effectively adding to the stress of the situation. This whole first act, which encompasses what seems like no more than a week or two, suggests a condensation of Pialat’s more thoroughly harrowing The Mouth Agape, right down to a certain view of Glenn from outside his bedroom.
Beyond this rather direct quotation and the pronounced use of grainy 16 mm, the spirit of the great French master of human discord is elsewhere more implicitly apparent. Instead of bonding in their mutual grief, those left in Glenn’s wake increasingly splinter apart over the course of Love After Love, flailing every which way in clumsy outbursts of repressed desire, inter-generational jealousies, and long-stewing pet peeves.
Nicholas, now down a sturdy male parental figure, is consumed by a newfound power trip that leads to competitiveness with his mother, a divorce, a remarriage, and several waves of infidelity; Suzanne resents her star son’s aggro behavior but quietly envies his fertile erotic life, leading her to unfulfilling dalliances of her own; and Chris drinks himself into reservoirs of self-pity while nursing a comedy writing career that’s dead in the water. To Harbaugh’s credit, he partitions considerable attention between each character, even spotlighting at various junctures such peripheral figures as Rebecca (whose poignant arc leads her to a falsely contented marriage and desk job), Nicholas’s too-sweet-for-her-own-good new wife, Emilie (Dree Hemingway), and an uninspiring man (Matt Salinger) with whom Suzanne embarks on a hesitant new relationship toward the end of the film.
MacDowell, who arguably hasn’t been given such a demanding role since Steven Soderbergh’s Sex, Lies, and Videotape, turns in a fine-toned, varied performance as the bruised and fragile Suzanne, a woman who’s clearly capable of great tenderness but who’s recoiled inward with the loss of her husband. Love After Love’s most memorable scenes have MacDowell as their center of gravity, as in when Harbaugh trains his camera on Suzanne as she half-heartedly fields the pleasantries and greetings of her new daughter-in-law’s extended family, wanting to be anywhere else, or when she tentatively enters a dance club with the desire to feel young again.
O’Dowd and Adomian are strong too, though their characters’ opposing manners of coping with their grief—the former erupting in fits of destructive anger, the latter in embarrassing displays of childishness—speaks to a larger penchant for schematics that handicaps the film. A family trip to the local theater exists only to enable the actors onstage to explicitly voice already lingering questions within the narrative proper about the malleability of desire and the validity of monogamy, while later, an admittedly funny standup routine by Chris nonetheless acts as an extremely literal itinerary of his inferiority complexes. Such thematic underscoring and character arc summarizing feels out of place in a film that otherwise allows its ideas and emotions to emerge naturally from the interplay of the actors in the familiar, sentimental spaces they inhabit. In any case, Love After Love manages enough gut punches along the way to render its missteps negligible.